by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Michael Giacchino might be a fresh name to the feature film world, but he's no stranger to anyone who watches television or plays computer games. From his beginnings writing orchestral music for Dreamworks Interactive's Medal of Honor computer games, to the dramatic action of "Alias", he's been moving up the ranks in the music community. Now with his feature film debut, The Incredibles, Giacchino breaks out into the mainstream. SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Michael at his studio in Los Angeles.
How did you get the gig for The Incredibles?
It was a combination of many things, but mainly because director Brad Bird had seen some of my work on "Alias", and he wanted a very specific sound - and some of the stuff I did on that show was in the ballpark of what he was looking for. It also just so happened that some of the guys I worked with years ago were at Pixar, so they could vouch for me. When you look at it, Pixar films are usually Randy Newman and Thomas Newman - very well established guys. I always felt like someone was going to look at me and say, "who let that guy in here?"
The great thing about Brad was the same situation I had with J.J. Abrams. When I met J.J., I was only doing video games, and J.J. heard the score to those games and wanted to meet me to get me to work on "Alias". The mentality that someone like J.J. or Brad can look at someone and say, "I like their work - I don't care if I don't know their last name" is so rare in this town. When I was doing videogames, I was the "videogame guy". I'm lucky in that I was working on some of the coolest games around, but it was hard to leap out of that, and it took someone like J.J. to say, "I don't care if they're just videogames - I like his work." The same thing happened with Brad. People would say, "but he's just a television guy," and Brad would say, "So what? I was a TV guy!" That's where Brad learned so much of what he does - with television. So he saw me as if I went through boot camp, and survived. He saw TV and rightly so, as like a boot camp for motion pictures.
What were the primary influences on The Incredibles?
When I first met with Brad, he asked me what I grew up listening to I told him I loved the Pink Panther movies, Star Wars, "Jonny Quest", "The Flintstones", "The Jetsons", "The Twilight Zone" - all these things. And we quickly realized what he and I both had a love for those 1960s jazz orchestra scores. It was an amazing time, when they were just going for it, with those jazz influences. No one was saying, "Oh that sounds cheesy" - it was what it was, and you believed in it, and just went with it. Brad's point was, when he was a kid he would hear that theme to "Jonny Quest" and would want to be Jonny Quest. And that's what he wanted for The Incredibles. He wanted the orchestral jazz energy that they used to have in the Bond movies, Pink Panther movies, and everything else I mentioned - the quasi-big band stuff. That's what he wanted in the score to his film. [Play "Family of Supers" MP3]
Anyone who is working now, who is in my age group, is lying if they say that stylistic approach never influenced them growing up. You could not have survived popular culture growing up in that time without being affected by it in some sense. The whole film carries that sensibility - from the architecture, to the design, color palettes - it's all influenced by this time that we grew up in, and it's nostalgic. But the challenge was to make it nostalgic, but new - and something that's not made fun of. Because many times when you hear these kinds of scores today, they're used in a way to parody something.
Both Brad and I truly believe that this style of music is as valid today as it was then, as a storytelling tool. So we committed to it, and said we'd go down this road, and score this film in a way as to not have people thinking of its a parody. The biggest challenge was to also keep it new and fresh. [Play "Logos" MP3] Brad was confident in his story and characters. And the score can be taken seriously; because it’s at home in this wonderful world he created.
John Barry was originally asked to work on the film, but reportedly was unable to write music that fit his old Bond style. Do you know what happened?
I don't know all of the details of what happened, but if someone came to me and asked me to write music like I did for Medal of Honor or The Lost World, I'd be hard pressed - even at this stage - to do the exact same thing. Then picture going 40 years into the future and try it! Forget it - people change, and it's different. You grow, and you can't just unlearn what you've learned. In the end, what I believe Brad wanted was to take all of those influences from our childhood, throw it in a bucket, mix it up, and hopefully come up with something new that harkens to that age, but fits the movie like a brand new glove. I knew the danger of doing this kind of thing was that there would be people out there who would say, "Oh, that's just that!" But you're never going to please everybody and quite frankly, all of us who worked on it believed in it - and that's all that mattered.
How did you get started writing music professionally?
Originally I worked at Disney in their publicity department in New York City, and then they moved me to Los Angeles. From there, I went over to Disney Interactive as an assistant producer. That's where I started working on video games, and thought I might be able to score some of them - I was writing music all the time on the side, but wasn't sure how you become a composer. I'm still not sure how - just keep trying, I guess. So I was lucky in a position where I was working on projects where I could try to submit music for projects. When Dreamworks started up, they helped me start up a videogame company called Mission Control. We developed some children's games, and while some of them never got off the ground, some of the guys who worked for me as animators there ultimately ended up at Pixar. Mission Control kinda went south, and at that point I started doing music for Dreamworks Interactive, and went freelance on my own. I did a bunch of games for them, including Medal of Honor. [Play "Main Theme" MP3]
Steven Spielberg even helped you out - how'd that happen?
Firstly, you have to understand is that with Spielberg, he's not just a fan of John Williams music, but he really understands ALL music. He knows it like nobody else! He understands music history, music theory, and so much about what film music and popular music is about. When he was directing The Lost World, I was asked to throw some stuff together for a few levels of the game which they were going to show Spielberg. I was upstairs in my office when they had the meeting, and I got a phone call from the conference room - Steven wanted to meet me!
So I came down, and we started talking about the music - and he said "So when are we going to record this with a live orchestra?" And the CFO and CEO were standing right there, and were thinking "uh, no!" that wasn't part of the budget. But it was Spielberg, so they said "we're working on that!" He understood that leap, from synth to live orchestra - he understood what the live musicians bring to the sound. It was relatively unheard of at the time, but who knows - maybe if he understood budget-wise, why it was prohibited, he might have said "no", but in his world, that's how it's done - they use a live orchestra. It was to be no different for this.
We didn't have a huge orchestra, because they didn't give me a lot of money to do it. So I ended up putting everything I made on that project back into it, just to get as big of a group as I could. There was no money for orchestration, and we couldn't afford to do it in Los Angeles. [Play "Welcome Mr. T-Rex" MP3] So it was a big learning experience for me - how to put it together, learning under fire. Each time I would streamline the process, and understood it better. You can go to school forever, but you're never really going to learn until you just do it. So everything I did in school prior to that really helped as a baseline, but orchestration and the understanding of all of those things are only aspects of music you can really "get" if you do it. So it was the greatest school I ever had, working for Dreamworks doing video games. It was a great training ground.
From there you went on to score "Alias"...
Actually, there was something in between the video games and "Alias". Dreamworks was doing a project called "Semper Fi" which they hoped to have as a TV series, but it ended up being a movie-of-the-week. Steven gave me that job based on my work on Medal of Honor. [Play "Firefight" MP3] So he has been one of the greatest proponents for me - one of these guys that didn't have to take notice of what I was doing, but did. As a result, I got amazing opportunities out of it. "Semper Fi" didn't go anywhere, but J.J. contacted me afterwards. Apparently a friend of his, Jesse Alexander, who is a producer on "Alias" is an avid gamer, and told J.J. he needed to listen to the games, and talk to me about working on the show. So J.J. sent me an email out of the blue, and asked to meet with me. I didn't think anyone did that, since usually agents would be involved - but that's the type of person J.J. is. If you look at the group of people around him, they're all great people, and he understands that they're all going to work together for a long time. I look at the people I work with on the shows and we can hang out as easily as we can work together. It's an interesting and unique situation. I hear from other people who are in nightmare situations, but I never feel that was with J.J.. I'm very lucky!
You didn't score the main titles for "Alias" - J.J. did...
J.J. is a closet musician - he loves it! He has a whole set-up at home that he plays around with. He loves music as much as I do, and grew up listening to all of the same people I listened to. It's an outlet for him, to be creative in that area. He created the show, and I figured well, it's his show, and if he wants to create the main title, who am I to complain?
What do you think about the state of scoring for television shows today?
Television has gone through a drastic change, as far as music goes. You look when you had shows like "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "The Twilight Zone" and all these great series - the only way to do that music was live. You didn't have a fake orchestra in your computer, like you have now. So as the synths evolved, the producers looked at it as a way to bring the production costs down. And that really took over in the early 1980s, and then it grew to the point where it became the standard.
Television used to be a great place for musicians to start out. It was composer's and musician's boot-camp. Musicians who were trying to get into film work started out in television. That's where they made relationship with people, and as they grew, they all moved up together and did film work. It's not like that anymore. I grew up listening to live players, so when I hear synth stuff, I go crazy because that's not how its' supposed to be! "The Flintstones", "The Jetsons", "Jonny Quest" - all the things I loved as a kid, were all recorded with live players. And I was always just so disappointed with current television - not to say that you have to use live orchestra for everything, but I don't like synth orchestra - when it's supposed to sound live, but it's not.
So that's why with "Alias" you're using an orchestra?
I told J.J., since I felt so strongly about it, that if he wanted it to be an all techno show, that's fine - but if there was going to be any orchestra, it should be real. J.J. wanted a techno aspect, and I wanted a strong orchestral part of it because I knew that would carry the emotions of the characters. In a show like Alias, which already throws such unbelievable premises at you, you need every weapon you can to keep it grounded so that people somehow will suspend their disbelief. Fortunately we have amazing actors on the show, and so musically I wanted the emotions of the players to hold it all together. J.J. 100% agreed with me, and went to the network and fought for that money. And we got it, and thank goodness we did, because it allows you to watch the show and not disbelieve it as much as you might if we had gone with a full-on synth/sampled music score. [Play "Syd's Best Alias Yet" MP3]
Also, in a show like "Alias", which is almost like a spy-opera, you have to rely on these thematics. So themes for different characters developed over the first season and into the second season, but it's interesting - it started out in season one with a lot more techno in balance with the orchestra, and as the characters developed and became stronger, the music skewed more orchestral. It was a natural progression that happened - it's not so much about the electronic aspect about keeping the energy and rhythm up, but rather about the characters and what is going on with their lives. And then into season three, it became a mostly orchestral show.
Where do you see it going with season four?
Well, in season four it changes all again. J.J. likes to throw things up in the air every six months or so. We're talking about adding a couple of new instruments to our core group - maybe a percussionist or bass player; we're still working it out.
You also worked on a new computer game coming out this winter, called Mercenaries - but didn't do the final score. What was the deal there?
My friend, Peter Hirschman, who is a producer of the game, knew that I was in the middle of working on "Alias" and The Incredibles, and wanted to know how something like this might work. He asked if my assistant, Chris Tilton, might be up for the challenge. So, we figured that I would write the themes, and Chris would write the score. So I wrote this huge main theme suite that encapsulated all of the areas of the game, and from that we extracted all of the different themes that were tied to the different parts of the story. Chris took that and did the score. I didn't want it to be something like "Music by Michael Giacchino" when I didn't really do all of it, so we were able to work it out and get Chris a decent credit for it! He did a great job.
What about Alias: The Game?
Yeah, Chris took the themes from the show, and it was mostly synth, but some live stuff was recorded for it. I haven't even seen the game, so I don't know about that one.
How do you think your computer game work might have affected the game industry when it comes to music? There are many more orchestral scores being recorded for games now than ever before!
I think it allowed more people to point to what we were doing and say, "Well, they're doing it! Why can't we do that?" It's a process - it's expensive, and adds a lot to the budget, but you can feel the difference. People might not know if it's synth or live, but the can feel it if it's synth or live. It's one of those things they talk about in their experience of the game. It helps people get sucked into what the game is. It's no different than movies - you have to have a good game, and start with that. In movies, if you don't have a great story to tell, good luck. The greatest score in the world might be great on a CD, but it's really not going to help your movie be better! Which is why you see a lot of scores thrown out, because they see that the movie isn't working, and the last thing they can do to change the movie is to throw out the score and put a new one in. It’s sad, actually.
With "Lost", you're now doing two television shows at once. It's hard enough to do one, but how do you manage with two?
In the case of "Alias", I have somewhat gotten it down to a science, in terms of how to work it all out. "Lost" is a whole different approach to scoring a show than "Alias" is. "Lost" is minimalist whereas "Alias" is "throw everything and the kitchen sink at it and see what sticks". "Lost" needs a much lighter touch as far as the music goes. Musically, we use it when we really need it - and even then, we try to keep it spare. [Play "Hangover" MP3]
Where is the show going?
I don't know myself! I purposely don't read the scripts, because I really like the show and have a lot of fun watching it - so I'm only about a week ahead of everybody else. I'm not worth that much information! <laughs>
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I'm working on The Muppet Wizard of Oz, a TV movie for ABC. Jim Henson was one of my idols growing up - I was so influenced by his work, and to be able to work with these guys, and get an insight into who they are, is just a blast. Dorothy is played by Ashante, so there's an R&B bend to her songs, which I've been writing with Jeanie Lurie and Brandon Christy, and then I'll do the score later in the winter. It's been a lot of fun. After that, we'll see what happens.
J.J. is currently slated to direct Mission: Impossible 3. Are you going to be involved?
I shrug my shoulders and say "we'll see"! It's a ways off, he's still writing it! Who knows…
Do you have a dream project?
I think I just did it. Seriously, about two years before the film came out, I read about the movie and told myself that if I could have any movie to do, I would do that one. I loved The Iron Giant, and am so picky with movies and how people tell stories, and Brad just "gets" it. And I thought I would just love to do that movie - but they would never let me do that movie; it's a Pixar movie! So I put that thought aside. But in the end, it just goes to show you, you never know, do you?
The Incredibles is in theaters now, eating up the box office. The soundtrack is available from Walt Disney Records. The soundtrack to Season Two of "Alias" will be released by Varese Sarabande Records later this month, and Season Four premiers in January on ABC. "Lost" is currently airing on ABC. Look for Mercenaries to be released later this winter on La-La Land Records.
Special Thanks to Chris Tilton, Chad Seiter, Maria Kleinman at Walt Disney Records, and Dave Wong at Walt Disney Publicity.